Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America

By T. H. Breen | Go to book overview

VII
A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia, 1660-1710

ONE SCHOLAR WHO reviewed the most recent literature on Early American society included me among the "Left Pastoralists." I am not entirely certain what this label means, but if it fits anything I have written, then surely it must be "A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations." Migrants by tens of thousands arrived in mid-century Virginia searching for what Governor William Berkeley aptly termed a chance "of bettering their condition in a Growing Country." Modern economic historians may tell us that these people had a fair opportunity to achieve upward mobility in the New World -- at least, before 1670 -- but contemporary indentured servants, black slaves, and impoverished freemen seemed quite unaware of the favorable circumstances in which they found themselves. They claimed they were exploited at every turn, and in their anger and frustration, poor Virginian's -- black as well as white -- joined in violent protest.

This chapter explores complex economic and social conditions that shaped race relations in the second half of the seventeenth century. For a brief period, some blacks and whites placed material interests before racial considerations and cooperated in challenging the authority of the great planters. During the 1680s, largely because of a major change in the colony's demographic structure, the "giddy multitude" dissolved. Virginia split along racial lines, and an opportunity to form a different kind of society was temporarily lost.

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